Towards A Flawed Verdict

IN Media Practice | 26/10/2004
Ignored so far by the major media, a small storm has been gaining in strength with its eye in these flawed voting machines.



Dasu Krishnamoorty



On the eve of the presidential election, fears that Florida might repeat are haunting the American electorate. Apart from the disenfranchisement of felons, failure to register African-Americans and a spate of law suits originating in the Help America Vote Act 2002; electronic voting machines are seen as a hazard to a fair verdict. After sporadic and half-hearted mention of the damage these machines can do to the final outcome, mainline media seem to have woken up to the misgivings among the millions of voters about the reliability of these contraptions. They reduce the certainty that every vote cast will be counted. Every one of nearly 50 million American voters will be touching the screen of these machines to exercise their franchise without the means to know whether the machine has registered their vote. Susan Llewelyn of The Christian Science Monitor has very picturesquely described the voter predicament in these words: "Imagine your bank teller accepting your deposit and then saying ‘Oh, you don’t need a receipt. It’s all in the computer.’ " Forty-two of the 51 states are likely to experiment with this inadequately tested technology.

coalition of activists around the country held rallies recently in 19 state capitals to publicize their fears about paperless voting systems, demanding that voting machines be equipped with printers before the November election. According to this campaign called "Computer Ate My Vote," paperless voting systems are poorly programmed and are prone to hackers, fraud and software bugs. "Computers don`t work very well," said one of the rally organizers. "If you want to have something you can count, you need paper."

Advocacy groups are filing suits demanding that voters get a paper acknowledgement of their vote. Last Tuesday, a professor at Rutgers University, representing Coalition for Peace Action and New Jersey Peace Action registered a suit against the state of New Jersey asking the court to bar the use of these machines called DREs (direct recording electronic machines). He maintained that such use is likely to repeat the 2000 Florida election fiasco and could determine how three million voters of New Jersey will cast their ballots. The suit claims "anyone with basic knowledge of computer programming can write a software programme that can disguise itself as a legitimate application and mask its malicious acts." Penny M. Venetis, who filed the suit, said, "There have been no tests done on these machines." An appeals court in Maryland dismissed a similar suit recently. Last month, California passed a law making compulsory a paper record on all its voting machines. Several states are weighing whether they should not ban these machines at least after the presidential elections.

Diebold Inc., the largest supplier of these machines, is very much in the news. Barbara Simmons, a former president of the Association for Computing Machinery, told protesters that officials should hold off on electronic balloting until more accurate machines are available. AP also reports that California Attorney General Bill Lockyer announced that two people filed a lawsuit against Diebold recently alleging that the machines make California elections vulnerable to hackers and software bugs. Last year, a hacker is reported to have broken into Diebold`s computer system and stolen company software, internal memos and e-mails. People also want a change in the electronic voting machine certification process and want a paper ballot printout to verify accurate voting, said AP.

A report in The New York Times quotes Bev Harris as telling the director of Mohave county in Arizona that an outsider could hijack his central tabulator, the computer that stores all of the county’s votes and steal an election. Ms. Harris, director of Black Box Voting, has been touring ten states investigating flaws in electronic voting. She has made enough enemies now among the voting machine manufacturers. According to Ms Harris, one of the key vulnerabilities of the electronic voting machines is the central tabulator that could control a million or more votes in some counties. There will be thousands of election workers with access to these computers who could change vote totals rapidly. Ms Harris says, ‘It is not hacking an election. It is editing an election.’ She says she had heard reports that one of the big machine manufacturers may be including a modem connection between a county’s tabulating computer and the manufacturer’s own headquarters, which could allow it to change vote totals from afar.

At West Palm Beach, Florida, a computer crash forced a pre-election test of electronic voting machines to be postponed. Critics of the ATM-like machines said it proved how fickle any computer-based voting system can be and highlighted the need for touch-screens to produce paper records. The test had to be postponed because excessive heat caused a computer server that tabulates data from the touch-screen machines to crash, said county elections supervisor Theresa LePore. The incident raised questions in the minds of computer hardware and software engineers about the reliability of other computers on which Floridians will depend for an accurate vote count on Nov. 2 -- especially touch-screen machines. A new poll done by Independent Media TV showed that 60 percent of likely voters surveyed would vote for a presidential candidate who promised to support a law requiring every e-voting machine to produce a paper record.

Throughout the country many small groups of public-spirited citizens are active in spreading awareness about the hazards of DREs, Global Exchange, a non-profit and nonpartisan organization, is sending teams of observers to monitor the American election. One of them is Ms. Neerja Choudhury, a columnist from Indian Express. Dr Rebecca Mercuri of Harvard University, Dr Stanley Dill of Stanford University and Prof. Aviel Rubin have done and are still doing a remarkable job in American campuses to investigate and explain electronic voting. Rubin and his colleagues inspected an unencrypted source code that was used in Diebold’s voting terminal and according to their study, the machines have numerous technical flaws that permit a person to vote more than once, to see ballots that have been cast on a machine, to change party affiliation on ballots, to alter the counting of votes, to modify, create or even delete voters inside the voting machines and to interfere with audit logs and election results.

Now the anti-DREs campaign has snowballed into a nationwide movement, posting volunteers in states like Ohio and Florida to distribute voters’ bills of rights and to help voters if they have last-minute problems with the machines. These groups are drafting law-student volunteers and transporting them to swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Verifiedvoting.Org, a leading critic of electronic voting in its present form, has launched an election protection programme called TechWatch that will sign up thousands of volunteers who will observe the pre-election "logic and accuracy" done on the voting machines, watch actual voting on the election day and monitor the post-election vote counting. The election administration in America is bracing to face a flood of litigation relating to DREs. Security personnel are worried about a possible terrorist strike that may disrupt the election process.

A The New York Times editorial says, "The mechanics of American democracy are deeply flawed, and Congress, state governments and local elections officials have been unwilling to do what is necessary to fix them (DREs). If this election is going to be a fair and honest one, concerned citizens will have to do their part to ensure that every vote counts."  

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